07 November 2005

Bone Games

Update 9/5/09- I'm always looking for more games, stories, and traditions about these bones. Feel free to leave a comment if you know something about them, or email me. amirabook@gmail.com

I’ve been able to to find out more about the sheep bone games popular in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tuva, and Mongolia. The games are similar to knucklebone games that you may have heard of from Europe (see this site for lots of information). A Kyrgyz friend said that he hasn’t seen children in Bishkek play with chuko for several years but that in other town, especially in the north, it was still popular. It doesn’t appear to be a traditional Uzbek game. Everyone has said that girls don’t play the games, but every girl I’ve asked has known quite a bit about the rules. I’m not convinced that girls don’t play.

Anyway, here are the names of the bones in various languages: assyk (Kazakh), chuko (Kyrgyz), shagai (Mongolia), kazhyk (Tuvan), and alchik (Russian). And before we go further, the Tuvans live in Russia near the headwaters of the Yenisei and are very likely related to the Kyrgyz.

There appears to be a book about Tuvan games, but I couldn’t find it actually available anywhere on the internet. It is called Kazhyk!: Sheepbone Dice Game Rules by Ralph Leighton.

There are four sides to each bone (well, technically 6, but we’ll get to that later). I’ve had different people tell me different names, but there seems to be agreement about which sides are the best, or get the most points. In these pictures you see, from top to bottom, shah or ayqur, pirk, chik, and ta or tava. Ayqur is considered the best (because it's hardest to roll), then tava, pirk, and finally chik.

In Mongolia and Tuva each side is named for a different animal. Again in order of the pictures, you see camel, sheep, goat, and horse for the Mongolian version; the Tuvan is horse, sheep, goat, and cow. The Tuvans also name the other two sides (the very small sides) which are difficult to roll (although my husband did one time) camel and yak.

It is hard to find the bones in the US. My understanding is that you can’t buy real bones like these. You can get resin ones if you like. Or you can make your own, like I am. I went to a butcher and told him what I wanted. He had a collection of bones for me when I went back today and I brought them home and boiled them to clean them. This site about knucklebones has more detailed instructions (it also has instructions for some Roman variations). The butcher had done most of the work for me, so it really wasn’t icky to do this. This would be a cheap and interesting way to get your own bones. I got pig bones today which are about twice as large as sheep bones. The butcher said he’d round up some smaller ones (hopefully from sheep) by this weekend. We’ll see how it goes. I'll post pictures when I have some finished.

And finally, here are the games I’ve found so far. I’ll post more whenever I am taught a new version.

Toss out all your shagai bones (20 or 30 will do) then you can start flicking them with your fingers. Flick a horse at a horse, a sheep at a sheep, etc. If you do this without hitting another bone, you can pick up both pieces. If you miss or hit the wrong bone, the next person gets to go until she misses. The point of the game is to collect as many bones as you can.

These are the basic rules for this game. This site (search for "The Anklebone Shooting Game) has more detailed instructions near the bottom of the page.

(Mongolia) The Horse Race Game
Line all your bones up, horse side up. You want at least ten bones, and you can make a nice curving pattern if you like. You’ll also need one bone for the dice and a marker for each player. Line up all the markers, horse side up, next to the first bone. Take turns throwing the dice. Whenever you shake a horse, move your marker up alongside the next bone. Whosever marker gets to the end of the line first wins. (This involves more skill than a dice game we’re familiar with because there is a knack for shaking horses and camels. There’s not much you can do to shake a certain number with a regular 6-sided die.)

Another version is a lot like jacks. Put four bones in the floor, then toss a fifth bone in the air. Pick up one bone and catch the tossed bone. Repeat till you’ve picked up all the bones, then repeat by picking up two bones at a time. For the third round, put the bone you toss of the back of your hand to toss it in the air. That’s as far as we got. :)

This one is a bit like soccer. Toss out a small number of bones. Choose two bones at one end of the playing area to be the goal. The idea is to get as many bones as possible through the goal-bones. You do this by flicking one bone between two other bones. If you miss or hit another bone, that’s bad. I hope this one made sense; some are hard to explain in writing.
See who can get four different sides up by dropping four bones from a foot in the air.
Line the bones up in the center of a circle, saving the biggest bone. Stand a few feet away (someone said seven foot-lengths) and using that bigger bone, try to knock the other bones out of the circle. You win whichever bones you knock out.

See who can throw their bone closest to a small pile of bones.

Draw line in the dirt and see who can toss the most bones behind the line.

All of the above games I’ve been personally taught. I found the ones below online.

In this game sets of 8 or 12 bones are 'shot' towards a target two at a time, using a special plank as a sling. The winner is the one who has the greatest number of bones by the end of the game. (http://mongolia.worldvision.org.nz/news/story12.html)

"Mongolian Jacks are played a bit like modern Jacks, but without a rubber ball. A given number of bones (the more bones, the longer and more difficult the game) are thrown on a hard surface. One player immediately has to pick up all the bones that have fallen on the "horse" side from the pile, without touching any other bones. If he does, the turn goes to the next player, who gathers the remaining bones and throws them again, to repeat the process. The player with more "horses" wins. An interesting variation of this game is using a small square piece of chain mail as a ball, throwing it upwards and picking the bones with the other hand. If either the player touches other bones that are not "horses", the bones fall from the hand, or are picked with the other hand, the player loses the turn." (http://colynethorfinna.tworavens.org/GamesGuild/articles_shagai.htm)

There is a slightly different version of the horse race game called a’t charyshtyrary in Tuva, found at this site:

"Again, any number of people can play --- the more the better. One bone for each contestant is placed horse side up along a starting line, usually on a carpet. In turn, each player takes four bones and rolls them onto the carpet. The number of bones that land horse side up determines how far you move your own horse around the race course and back. Getting one or more horses results in an extra roll. As you roll the bones, call out encouragement to your horse! ("SHOO-dah!'" means "Giddyap!"')"




  1. THANK YOU for all this information. I have looked and looked for rules for knucklebone games. I have a few games and have even tried to make some knucklebones out of clay. Unfortunitly they ended up looking like bunch of rabbits and my husband said that the dignity of the game was lost when you are casting a handful of rabbits. This is a much better explanation and with pictures) of what each side looks like and what the scoring is. Maybe I will even try to make some again.

  2. hey blackbadger, have you considerd getting knucklebones from your local butcher? Should be pretty easy, especially if you go to a kosher/hallal butcher.

  3. Facsimiles of knucklebones are also available from MacGregor Historic Games at http;//historicgames.com

  4. anonymous, if you stop by again, are these facsimiles the right weight? Every fake knucklebone I've tried has either been much too heavy or much too light. I'd love to find a good source of inexpensive reproductions that work well.

  5. Out of curiosity, I put one of our facsimiles on my postal scale to find out the weight difference.
    The replica is about 3.5 cm long -about a millimeter larger than the real bone that I had on hand, and it weighed in at 10 grams.
    The real bone was about 5 grams.
    The real bone hasn't been in a sheep for close to 15 years so it has had a lot of time to dry. I suspect a "fresher" bone might be closer in weight to our resin replicas -but that may depend on how long it is boiled and/or bleached to sterilize it, and the amount "oils" remaining in the tissue of the bone as a result of the processing.

    A side note is that facsimiles of knucklebones were being sold in the U.S. as toys for games like "fivestones" at least up to the 1920's.

    "Anonymous," aka Chas
    owner of MacGregor Historic Games

    P.S. I saw a posting about this article on a dice collectors' page at: http://groups.msn.com/DiceManiacsClubakaTheRandomFandom

  6. Thanks Chas. I might give them a try if I can't track more bones down here.

  7. hattrick1002000@yahoo.comDecember 31, 2006

    Thanks. A Buryiat (indigenous Siberian) scientist from Baikal (possibly Ulan Ude) gave me 7 sheep bones as home-stay thank-you gift when she stayed with us in Calif. and I wondered how to play.

    If she was from east of Baikal, that would extend the bone games further east and north than the Yenisey headwaters in No. Mongolia.

  8. I don't doubt that these games extend much farther north and east than the places I mentioned. I just wish there were more information about them. I'd love to travel around Central and Northeast Asia researching these games.

  9. they do play the games in uz. they don't always use bones, i've seen it played with rocks, apricot pits, and even smashed metal bottle caps. i have seen it played with bones, though. you would have to look in rural areas.